‘Shipwreck of Civilization’

Life has gotten much worse for the world’s migrants.
Migrants on the Belarus side of the border with Poland near Kuznica, Poland, Nov. 10, 2021 (CNS photo/Irek Dorozanski. DWOT handout via Reuters)

The plight of the world’s migrants and refugees seems to worsen with every passing month. In late November twenty-seven people drowned when their fragile inflatable dinghy capsized in the English Channel. In December a speeding truck packed with refugees from Central America flipped over on a busy road in southern Mexico; fifty-four of them died. Most troubling of all was what occurred on the border between Belarus and Poland in mid-November, when President Aleksandr Lukashenko ordered thousands of desperate Middle Eastern migrants to force their way into Poland, using them as pawns to seek leverage against the European Union. Polish troops resorted to tear gas and water cannons to drive them back, where they were then left to freeze in the wilds of the Białowieża Forest. At least eleven died from exposure.

These events seemed to elicit little more than a shrug in Europe and the United States, but indifference toward the migrant crisis has lately become even more tinged with hostility to the migrants themselves—and opposition to the right to migrate at all.

This is something of a shift for the European Union, which as recently as 2013—led by figures like Angela Merkel of Germany and Matteo Renzi of Italy—sought to welcome migrants through progressive policies and humanitarian programs. But now there’s talk of unraveling the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which permits open internal border crossing throughout most European countries. This has been accompanied by new reporting from the New Yorker’s Ian Urbina on the EU’s outsourcing of migrant apprehension and detention to militias associated with Libya’s government. Provided with money and surveillance information from Frontex, the EU border agency, Libyan “coast guard” crews intercept vessels in the international waters of the southern Mediterranean and return captured migrants to makeshift prisons in Tripoli, where they are starved, beaten, and sometimes killed, or pressed into forced labor.

In our continued indifference and increasing hostility, we are only condemning more of the world’s most vulnerable people to death.

On this side of the Atlantic, there was a record number of migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has reinstated the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico,” reneging on a promise to recognize the right of asylum seekers to come to the United States to have their cases heard. Its options may have been limited after a federal judge in Texas ordered the program to restart, a decision later upheld by the Supreme Court. Though the administration is promising to ensure the safety of asylum-seekers stuck in squalid camps and to reduce wait times for hearings, humanitarian groups are not optimistic—especially when the administration also continues to cite Title 42 public-health rules as a pretext to prohibit entry and justify deportations.

Wealthier nations must do far better than this, and indeed they may soon have no choice. The World Bank predicts that the effects of climate change will displace an additional 150 million people before 2050. Speaking from the Greek island of Lesbos last month, Pope Francis again implored the developed world to get past its fear and self-interest. Lamenting the “shipwreck of civilization,” he called on wealthy countries to “stop ignoring reality.” He’s right: in our continued indifference and increasing hostility, we are only condemning more of the world’s most vulnerable people to death.

Published in the January 2022 issue: 

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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